Summer 2021 News & Events

Third verse, same as the first.

It’s been eight months since the last news post, so I’m overdue for an update. It has mostly been a period of planning, rescheduling, waiting, rescheduling again. It has also been a period of resourcefulness, opportunistic workarounds, dogged determination, a good bit of luck, and some patient trust that it’ll somehow all work out in the end … plus a period of delving deep into the constantly shifting goalposts of Covid travel regulations. Plus Covid tests. Lots and lots and lots of Covid tests. (And of course the perhaps irrational but nevertheless considerable fear that, at any step, one positive test or one rejected travel locator form brings the whole thing crashing down again.) I’ve tried to get through it by not really ever being … hopeful. Just one tiny step at a time, doing the next day’s work and never getting ahead of myself by really looking ahead any more than what’s immediately required.

One of the best things to come of the last 18 months, as far as I’m concerned, has been the shift towards video as a way to fill the gap while much of concert life has been on hold. I suspect we’ll look back on this period in several years with real gratitude — the contribution to the video library, on YouTube and elsewhere, has been immense, and this is a resource that will be with us for generations. I’m particularly impressed by the organisations that have been able to direct resources towards high-quality, well-lit, multi-camera shoots. These aren’t cheap, obviously, and the pre- and post-production time is considerable. But these videos have been a massive gift — and, really, that’s exactly what they are — to the field.

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of two of the more impressive contributions on this front, Ensemble Musikfabrik’s immense Lockdown Tapes series (which seems to have been extended beyond its previous ‘lockdown’ incarnation), and ELISION’s Performance Series.

The most recent of these videos to be released are recordings by Daryl Buckley of The wreck of former boundaries for electric lap steel guitar and electronics, and a pairing of my two trombone solos — Because they mark the zone where the force is in the process of striking (or, First Study for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion) and songs only as sad as their listener — performed by Ben Marks.

The idea of pairing the trombone solos back-to-back is something Daryl dreamed up for an ELISION concert we did a few years ago in Austin, Texas, at the invitation of the wonderful Line Upon Line percussion trio. I think initially the idea was simply to perform them consecutively, but that somehow eventually evolved into an idea of eliding them without a pause, almost as a single attacca two-movement work. I love this approach. I particularly like the way that the completely different characters of silence in the two works somehow inform the other, and a kind of dialogue emerges between the two pieces through those very long, very charged silences. I also find it inspiring to hear how these pieces have grown with Ben in the 13 years he’s been playing them, and seeing their performance practice evolve.

The videos were absolutely beautifully filmed by Agatha Yim of Polyphonic Pictures, and expertly recorded by Alistair McLean.

I spent much of June and July working on some wonderfully rewarding conducting projects in Germany (having spent two intervening weeks in Lisbon to sidestep the travel restrictions from the UK — a sort of unofficial ‘artist residency’ alongside my wife Peyee, spent learning music and doing a bit of composing, interspersed with some lovely Portuguese food and the occasional bit of Covid-safe outdoor sightseeing), which also will have various video and audio recording outputs that will appear in the coming weeks and months.

First up was a project with Schola Heidelberg, conducting the final piece completed by my old friend Erik Oña prior to his death in 2019. Per Aures is, in essence, an ars subtillior study, full of the kinds of elegant, clever, numerological games that fascinated Erik, self-referential texts, and layers of independent meters and intertwining polyphony that occasionally congeal into these dancing, slightly off-kilter, machinelike, structurally frozen interludes, before the layered metrical games start up again. It was a joy to work on, and really a deep honour to be entrusted with Erik’s last contribution as a composer.

There was a beautiful symmetry — Erik and I were both at SUNY Buffalo together for several years, where our time as PhD students overlapped, and he conducted what I suppose was my first ‘real’ piece in 1999 at a performance for the June in Buffalo festival. I appreciated having the opportunity to share some old stories of Erik—his utterly brilliant musicianship, his spongelike brain, his endless charm—with the singers during the rehearsals. We recorded the piece for the video series that has taken the place of the twice-postponed Rhein-Neckar Biennale für Neue Musik. Our performance of Erik’s work is scheduled to be broadcast in early September. [Edit: it’s now up. Available here.]

I then did two projects with Ensemble Musikfabrik in Cologne, filling in at late notice for Clement Power, who was unable to travel because of Covid restrictions. The first project was premieres of six wildly different pieces as part of Musikfabrik’s ‘Adventure’ series in partnership with the Institut für Neue Musik at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz, Köln, which … included a concert! (Mit Publikum!) There was of course significant social distancing on stage, and very strict rules about testing (PCR tests every 48 hours for everyone involved), and of course FFP2 masks anytime anyone wasn’t actively playing, but it was a joy to be in a room making music for an audience. This project also included video recordings of all six works, which I believe will be made available sometime later this year.

The second project was two recordings of a fantastic new work by Turgut Erçetin, Thousand dead bodies under my bed, all cloaked with the breath of the living, for three simultaneous ensembles, which includes three independent, intertwined works that can be performed separately in three sort of concentric circles of ensembles of increasing sizes. We recorded all three works for broadcast at the WDR Funkhaus (as a live-ish ‘performance’, aber ohne Publikum), and also recorded the large ensemble piece in an all-day studio session for a future release on Wergo. The piece involves some considerable spatialisation—made even more considerable by the WDR’s Covid rules—so our ensemble of 13 players filled a stage designed for an orchestra, all mapped out in Turgut’s exceptionally intricate (and personalised!) stage diagram. [Edit: there’s a promo video about the piece here, which includes some really interesting information about Turgut’s approach to acoustics and spatialisation, plus some very useful words from Carl Rosman about Turgut’s approach to notation.]

It was a rather intense preparation period—I only received the score a few days before travelling to Cologne, so after rehearsals on the Musikhochschule project I would go back to the Airbnb each evening and work on learning Turgut’s piece until late at night. I would have loved to have had a few months to learn the piece—it is very difficult—rather than barely more than a week … but I was thrilled to have the opportunity. (Every conductor needs a good last-minute-replacement story, right?)

It was, once again, an enormous pleasure and privilege to work with the superb musicians of Musikfabrik, and wonderful to have a first chance to work with Schola Heidelberg, a group of absolutely lovely singers I’ve gotten to know over the years through my wife’s work there.

Beyond the conducting projects, the other particularly nice recent development is that this spring/summer saw the completion of two new PhD dissertations about my work. I’ve had pieces of mine featured as case studies and as individual chapters in PhD projects many times previously, but this is the first time that whole projects have been focused on single pieces.

  • Ralph Lewis, University of Illinois, “Aaron Cassidy’s Second String Quartet: Resilient Structures, Indeterminate Localities, and Performance Practice.” Summer 2021.
  • Samuel Fibich Yulsman, Columbia University, “Free Jazz Simulations and Political Despair in Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries.” April 2021.

I also finished this.

Usually these occasional news posts end with a list of current and upcoming events, but … honestly I have no idea. There are lots of things on the horizon, but exactly when/how/where they will actually happen …? Who knows.

If I’ve learned one thing from this last year, it’s that things will happen when they happen. Projects will be postponed or cancelled; other projects will fall into my lap that I couldn’t have even fathomed doing even weeks prior. There will be surprises, good and bad. This summer’s surprises, though, have been exceptionally good, for which I’m enormously grateful.

[Update, 10 Sept 2021: As I was saying … there will be surprises. I now have an even better last-minute replacement story. In early September I was called at the very last minute to fill in for Enno Poppe with Musikfabrik for an Ann Cleare portrait concert at the Berlin Philharmonie for Musikfest Berlin, as well as all of the rehearsals for Enno’s huge, hourlong Prozession. (Enno was himself called to Lucerne as a last-minute substitute for Ilan Volkov.) Got the call on Friday, started working through the pdfs of the scores that evening, got all my pre-flight Covid tests sorted on Saturday, flew to Cologne on Monday, and was in rehearsals from first thing Tuesday morning. I spent each day rehearsing from 10–5 or so, and then would go back to the hotel and study the scores for the next morning’s rehearsal until midnight. All a bit nuts — made slightly more nuts by the train strike, which meant an eight-hour bus ride from Cologne to Berlin, arriving just before 2am on Friday night — but all completely extraordinary. I have never felt quite as lucky and quite as awestruck as I did when I walked onto that stage. (It took me 20 minutes or so to build up the courage to step onto the podium — it’s that podium, which I’ve spent countless hours watching as a Digital Concert Hall subscriber.) Anyhow, thanks once again to my friends at Musikfabrik for trusting me with such an extraordinary opportunity. It was a joy to get to perform such superb music with such wonderful musicians in such an astonishing venue.]

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